Q&A with Jez Conolly
As part of Auteur Publishing's Devil's Advocates series of horror film monographs, Jez Conolly has written a terrific, in-depth study of John Carpenter's The Thing, published in 2013.
Jez has been a contributor to The Big Picture magazine and website for several years and has written for numerous other film-related books and journals. He has co-edited three books in the World Film Locations series published by Intellect, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool. We are very grateful to Jez for participating in this Q&A, and for the many kind words his book contains about Outpost 31! Jez's excellent book can be purchased via Amazon. The UK link is here and the US link is here.
Q. First of all, I’d like to ask how you came to the decision to write a book about The Thing?
A. The opportunity to write a book in the Devil’s Advocates series came my way when I attended a launch event back in September 2011 for another book series that I’ve contributed to, namely Intellect Books’ World Film Locations. I’ve co-edited three WFL titles, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool. One of the other WFL editors, Neil Mitchell, told me about his recent thumbs-up from Auteur to write a book about de Palma’s Carrie for the DA series and suggested that I make contact with the publisher. Neil asked me on the night which film I’d pick if I got the chance to write a DA book and I instantly said The Thing.
Q. What was it like working with Auteur Publishing?
A. It’s been great. My book proposal was well received and I felt that I had support all along the way right through to submission. I had a definite sense of freedom to express myself and not write to a strict template, which suited me very well.
Q. You’ve written and contributed to many other works relating to cinema. How did this come about and what has the evolution of your career in this regard been like? How did you come to take this direction? I’d also like to ask what your ambitions are as a writer, in every sense, including what kind of future projects you have in mind.
A. Film is in my blood; my father was a cinema manager for many years, in fact I am the only member of my immediate family not to have actually worked in a cinema at some stage. I took easily instead to the ‘sit back and enjoy’ part of the movie experience! I spent many years at art school in my teens and twenties, which didn’t exactly give me a terribly useful qualification at the end of it but allowed me to develop an analytical eye which naturally lent itself to the study of film. My first serious and sustained attempt at writing something that people might actually want to read was for a satirical website called The Commentary Box, which ran for a couple of years in the early noughties before the old jokes dried up. After that I took a Masters course in Film Studies at the University of the West of England in Bristol which gave me my first concerted opportunity to write something substantial about film. Shortly after completing that course I moved to live in Bath and fate brought me into contact with Gabriel Solomons who works for Intellect Books. As a result I began writing regular pieces for The Big Picture magazine and website. Aside from writing about film I do harbour some aspirations to teach on the subject. In terms of future writing, to quote MacReady: Why don't we just... wait here for a little while... see what happens…
Q. Are there any other films to which you would like to devote a book-length project in the future?
A. Yes definitely. I have actually pitched a proposal for another DA book, this time on Ealing Studios’ eerie portmanteau horror film Dead of Night.
Q. How would you describe yourself as a fan of cinema? Do you favour particular genres? Do you tend, instead, to admire singularly great films irrespective of genre? If either of these questions are too specific, then I’d like to ask you to describe the nature of your cinematic preferences.
A. I wouldn’t want to describe myself as a fan of any particular genre. I do have certain preferences, I love 1940s British cinema for example, but if I had to give my taste in films a definition it would be concerned with texture and tone more than plot and character. So I’m a huge devotee of David Lynch; the subliminal quality of his work has long fascinated me. I also like Terrence Malick, particularly his film Days of Heaven which drifts beautifully. It’s like watching a glorious sunset. The films of Terence Davies, with their glacial pacing and subtle interplay between sound and vision also appeal to me a great deal. Another British film maker who has shown great promise to my mind is Joanna Hogg. Her film Archipelago really impressed me. In a nutshell I love slow movies that demand you to invest your time in them. When I went to see Archipelago at the cinema several people left after about half an hour grumbling that nothing was happening. What they needed to do was disengage their expectations of movies as enforced by the majority of Hollywood Cinema that they are used to watching. One of my favourite films is Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. If you’ve seen it you’ll know how slow it is but I find that it gives me the head space to consider the passage of time and every time I watch it I get sucked into the central character’s fate more than any other film I know.
Q. Have you introduced many people to The Thing? If so, how did they respond? Did you make any observations about their age group and related expectations (e.g. younger people being more accustomed to CGI?)
A. If you read the opening section of the book you’ll learn how I forced The Thing onto friends and family when I got my hands on a video copy back in the 1980s. I was always intrigued to see how they’d react to the ‘money shots’. Only the other week I showed the film to a group of postgraduate students at the University of Bristol – by day I’m a librarian at the university – there were several comments afterwards about how realistic the effects were, I didn’t detect any sniggering from CGI aficionados.
Q. What was the process of writing the book like? How much of your time were you able to devote to it? Did you write it in fits and bursts or at a steadier place? Which were the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process/most enjoyable parts to write? Were there any that were problematic?
A. Because I work full time I wrote the whole thing in the gaps in between. So typically I would write or make notes for an hour very early in the morning in a café close to my office at the beginning of each working day and thread it all together during evenings and weekends. The book is around 35,000 words and it took me in the region of nine months to write it. A few years ago I took the decision to drop down to working four days a week to give myself the chance to write more, but it just didn’t work for me and I went back to full time. I found myself prevaricating and indulging in lots of displacement activities on my ‘writing day’. So experience has shown me that, rather perversely, I write better when my opportunities to do so are limited. Faced with lots of time to do it I end up staring out of the window!
Q. What did you think of The Thing prequel/computer game/comics?
A. I touch on the prequel a little in the book. I can’t honestly say that I rate it ever so highly, but you have to give its makers credit for attempting to recreate the 1982 film’s look and feel, and bothering to link it up so convincingly. I would certainly say that it is considerably better than a lot of the other recent horror franchise prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots. I did have a bit of a go on the video game, but I’m really not a gamer at all so can’t really comment on it. The same goes for the comics. Graphic spin-offs of movies have never really held an appeal for me, not that I don’t think they are valuable in keeping a film’s ideas alive, they just aren’t something that I have ever had an urge to read.
Q. Given your knowledge about and appreciation of the art of film, as amply demonstrated in this book and others, have you ever been tempted to write for the screen, or be involved in any other aspects of movie creation?
A. I dabbled with Super 8 years ago, and I once tried writing the script for a short film which never got off the ground (which was a shame as it was about a hot air balloon!) but generally speaking I’ve limited myself to film writing. Not really film criticism though, and here’s a contentious opinion for you: I don’t hold the role of film critic in terribly high regard. I consider myself a writer who writes about films. I want to write about films I love, not have to write about films I hate. I know that’s a bit of a ‘cake and eat it’ attitude but not being on a publication’s payroll is very liberating. I expect some writerly chums will shoot me down in flames for thinking that but I honestly think the days of the film critic are numbered. Thanks to the blogosphere anyone can express their opinions about the latest releases. We increasingly see new film posters emblazoned with tweets from John Q. Public rather than the pithy soundbites of esteemed critics. Like it or not that is the way we are headed.
Q. What do you think of The Thing as a franchise. It seems to come and go with occasional developments such as the Computer Artworks game and the 2011 prequel reminding the world of its existence, rather than there always being some current 'product'. Do you think this is a good or bad thing? What do you think the reasons for the sporadic nature of developments in this franchise might be?
A. If we’d seen a chain of sequel Thing films regularly released after 1982 I do wonder if Carpenter’s film would be held in such high regard today. The law of diminishing returns is pretty hard to avoid as is the cumulative negative effect on the source material that kick started any franchise; as I say in the book, the 2011 prequel, for all its faults, does not tarnish the 1982 movie, which is greatly to its credit. I consider the very notion of the Thing strong enough to reappear again in some form in the future, just not every other year, which is a good thing.
Q. Its merits/failings aside, the prequel did at least return The Thing to the public consciousness. Do you detect any effect it might have had on the fanbase demographic? For example, do you think it succeeded in appealing to a younger generation of fans, in keeping the flare lit?
A. Absolutely. It’s actually a perfect starting point for younger generations of film fans to discover those movies from the 1980s. How they respond to those older movies interests me greatly. In a way it’s a greater endorsement of the Carpenter film for an 18-year-old to watch it and enjoy it now than it is for someone my own age to sit down and watch it for the first time. It shows that the film has a long shelf life. I’m convinced it will still be being watched and enjoyed for years to come.
Q. Do you think you would feel in any way differently about The Thing if it had been a huge commercial success on its release and had become as familiar as, say, the Alien? Do you think it's possible that The Thing's relative obscurity has been one of its strengths, with it not having been disarmed through over-exposure?
A. People do enjoy unearthing a gem, not that The Thing is really that obscure, but compared to Alien it is certainly not all-pervading, and as we know it wasn’t widely seen upon release which has made it a delicious retrospective experience for many since. Another of its strengths is that, unlike the threat in so many other monster movies, Alien included, the Thing effectively can’t be beaten, the worst it can end up is dormant. That really appeals to me. If you consider Michael Myers’ apparent indestructibility in Halloween and also the possibility that the Thing could emerge again, you can see that Carpenter was interested in sending his audiences out of the cinema knowing that the threat was not entirely extinguished.
Q. Do you think it is possible for any movie, The Thing or otherwise, to have the kind of effect on the current and future generations that this one did on us and people of our generation, who were shocked both by what was depicted and by the fact that it could be depicted? More broadly, as time progresses with taboos/inhibitions being broken (irreversibly?) and with cinematic technology already having reached a sort of singularity where anything is possible, what do you see for the future of this medium, and especially for the body horror genre?
A. To use a bit of a Thing metaphor, the situation has polarised. The certificate 18 / R movies are so much more about non-fantastical/supernatural horrors, they are actual bodily harm films about man’s inhumanity to man manifesting in graphic physical/psychological torture. The monsters are now increasingly (and of course very successfully) consigned to films aimed at younger audiences. There’s a whole book to be written about why this has happened. Having said that I think we will always see occasional interesting ‘adult’ films that deal in monsters.
Q. In your book, you write extensively about the body horror aspect of The Thing. I'd like to ask if you think that effective alien horror is necessarily body horror? Is it not enough for a creature to be horrific purely by virtue of its extreme cognitive otherness? To make the popcorn drop, is it not sufficient for it to invade our senses, that it must go further to invade our very bodies and exploit our insecurities about them?
A. It’s perhaps a little perverse of me to say this having just written about one of the most notoriously graphic body horror films, but I actually prefer films that deliver their scares through unseen implication rather than onscreen manifestation. Like many others I absolutely love films like The Innocents, The Haunting, Night of the Demon, etc., older films that by and large used atmosphere to create fear. More often than not I’m ultimately disappointed by movie monsters once they are fully revealed, with one exception – The Thing!
Q. What, for you, is the most interesting and compelling aspect of The Thing?
A. Having now sat down and thought about the film fairly exhaustively over a long period of time for the sake of the book, I’d say it is the amount of stuff that emerges after several viewings. Certainly one can watch it once and enjoy it simply as a monster movie, nothing wrong with that at all, but it does reward repeat viewings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that it is as multi-layered as a Bergman or a Tarkovsky say, but without wishing to sound anti-intellectual the work of the loftier auteurs can be brilliant to the point of being opaque or hard to interpret. A few re-views of The Thing deliver some really nice extra discussion points.
Q. Do you believe in extra terrestrial life and, if so, in the possibility of something like The Thing actually being out there, somewhere?
A. I can’t say that I don’t believe, simply because it’s statistically more likely to exist compared to, oh I don’t know, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or God. However I don’t expect to see any irrefutable proof in my lifetime. I’m afraid that UFO sightings are wishful thinking and conspiracy theories are too attractively pat explanations. Sorry folks!
Q. What would you like to see happen next with The Thing ?
A. I’d actually like to see more people have a chance to see it in a cinema setting. Now that it’s over thirty years old it would be great to see it pop up in seasons of classic movie screenings. I did finally get to see it on a sort of big screen with a small audience a few months ago and I managed to extract something new out of the experience, which considering how much I’ve been thinking about it over the last year is saying something.
Q. What’s next for you as a writer?
A. Going back to my preference for implied creeping fear in movies, I’m going to have a crack at another volume in the Devil’s Advocates series, covering the 1945 film Dead of Night. Quite a different subject to The Thing but one that I hope people will find interesting.